Not about Leonardo da Vinci…

Ha ha ha.  That got you, didn’t it?  What’s that plaguey saucebox, Bennetts, on about now, you asked yourself.

So, who invented the submarine and the torpedo? 

Yes, yes, I know…Leonardo da Vinci drew pictures of them in his famed notebooks and therefore technically invented them.  But he invented nearly everything, so he doesn’t count. 

No, this is about an American inventor and businessman, by the name of Robert Fulton.  He was from Pennsylvania.  And initially, he tried to sell his idea for a submarine to the French…from about 1798, when of course the Naval war with the British was really beginning to heat up. 

His prototype worked fairly well too–they were able to steer the thing using the compass points, and they remained under the water for about an hour. 

But the French, despite their need of something new and splendid against the Brits, weren’t buying.  And despite all Fulton’s efforts by 1804, Napoleon had said ‘No’.  (Remember by 1804, they’d already lost spectacularly to the British at Aboukir Bay in ’98 and Copenhagen in ’01, so they should have been in the market for something…)

So Fulton took his plans and scarpered across the Channel to the English.  He was joined in his work by a chappie called Johnson–official title ‘Johnson the Smuggler’ whom the French had unsuccessfully tried to turn so that he’d spy for them.

Anyway…Johnson had been employed by the Secret Service, as were many smugglers, for gathering information in the Channel and for landing agents in France.  So he knew his way around the place.

The Admiralty, while liking Fulton’s plans for the submarine, felt that the problem of propelling the thing was insurmountable, but they were quite keen on his submerged bombs. 

Fulton was the first person to use the word torpedo–taking the name from Torpedo nobiliana, a rather nasty little ray which stunned its prey by means of an electric shock. 

They’re quite nifty little contrivances, these early torpedos, or carcasses as most people called them:  “made of copper, and…spherical in form; hollow to receive their charge of powder, which by means of machinery, that worked interiorly, and so secured as to be perfectly watertight, exploded at the precise moment that you chose to set it to.”

And the plan was mainly to weight the bombs with ballast to be almost invisible, then attach them to enemy warships by stealth, probably undercover of darkness. 

And this is exactly what the British did, using the torpedos against the French fleet assembled at Boulogne.  Ka-ba-ba-BOOOM! 

(Whoops!  Got that one wrong, Boney, didn’t you?)


8 comments on “Not about Leonardo da Vinci…

  1. I never knew about the torpedoes – just thought the admiralty sent Fulton away with a flea in his ear. How do you manage to retain all this stuff? I’d have to have half-a-dozen reference books alongside while I wrote it. Pretty soon I’ll have to start referencing YOU in my notes!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The problem is…the problem is I do retain it. And then the problem for people who know me is that it just keeps falling out of my mouth.

      Like when when we’re strolling down the High Street and, blaugh, there you are in the middle of a soliliquey about Fulton or the cavalry regiment where the farriers were also in charge of discipline, so they weren’t much liked, and then during some siege or other, they decided to offload their kit so they could stash more stuff they nicked from the Frenchies, which seemed like a good idea until they had to shoe the horses again…You see?

      The difficulty with the torpedoes was that although they did work, they didn’t prove as much of a destructive force as the Navy wanted. And the French were in a huge period of naval build-up in 1804.

      Fulton went back to the States then, and is credited with inventing the steam ship–he died in 1815.

      Julian Stockwin has Fulton as a character in his new novel, Invasion

  2. So what? I’ll use your whipcracking farriers when I get my characters to Badajoz. Sounds a much more interesting story than a load of seamen…

    They must struggle to Corunna first, though, which seems to be taking a darn sight longer than in real life.

  3. It heartened me to find that, according to Alexander Gordon, a large number of troopers were upset at the apparently unecessary slaughter of their erstwhile partners. Whether that was due to increasing recruitment of non-agricultural workers who had little previous contact with horses, or a symptom of a more general change in public attitudes to animals years before Anna Sewell, I don’t know.
    Me – I’m not very emotional about people. Horses? That’s a different matter. I think I can write about the sheer awfulness of the retreat because a keyboard lets you step back from it; just be a reporter, somehow. To borrow a phrase from Dick Francis, it gives you an excuse not to feel.
    We’ll see.
    I’ve not got to Rueda yet!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      You’re a great deal braver than I. I just buckle when they start talking about the horses being hobbled in the streets…but that was really just preparation for reading what happened to the horses during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia–and I’m not just talking about the retreat. I don’t believe I could ever write a novel about that.

      I fancy an element of their closer relationship with their horses had to do with the fact that they knew they depended upon these creatures. We have cars to get us about, tractors to bring in the harvest, lorries to take our goods to town. They only had horses, who were often their means of survival. Imagine how you or I would feel about a horse who’d got us out of a tight situation in a battle or with bandit–we’d owe it our life, and we’d know that.

  4. I’ve had that feeling looking at a big, black hedge between a pair of chestnut ears.

    Bet you have, too.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, er, yes.

      Most memorably when I’d been out in a severe gale with driving rain. The horse in question, a liver-chestnut who can be as scatty as a leaf blown in the wind. However, on this particular day, he was the steadiest ride of my life, and although the wind was literally blowing us across the five-foot of pathway, he never missed a stride, never once flinched or spooked. Not even when we were trotting up the road, on the final stretch, and the wind was tearing the branches off the trees which branches were then falling and crashing into pieces about his hooves on the tarmac.

      The wind had been so fierce that the rain had been coming directly sideways, so that when we got back to his stall, he was soaked on his left side, but nearly dry on his right.

      He preserved my life that day.

      And I am known for stripping down to my vest to rub him down with my own shirt and jumper before I went in…

      So yes, I have some idea.

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